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Health Effects of Global Warming Could Be Devastating, WWF Report Finds

As Temperatures Rise, So Do Infectious Diseases Such as Malaria, Dengue Fever

Washington--Global warming will have grave consequences for human health and already appears to be a major factor in the alarming spread of infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and meningitis, according to a new report released today (Thursday) by World Wildlife Fund. The report notes that children and the elderly are especially susceptible.

"There are strong indications that a disturbing change in disease patterns has begun and that global warming is contributing to them," said the report's author, Dr. Paul Epstein, Associate Director of the Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment.

Among the report's findings:

  • The spread of infectious diseases has accelerated not only because the world is warming, but because nighttime temperatures are rising faster than daytime temperatures. This has particularly disturbing implications for human health because the range of many disease-transmitting insects is limited chiefly by nighttime temperatures;

     

  • Because there is less relief at night, summer heat waves are also claiming more fatalities around the globe and can be expected to pose an even more serious risk, particularly for children and the aged, in the future as temperatures continue to rise;

     

  • Climate plays a central role in maintaining the balance between predators and prey -- a balance that is being altered by global warming in a way that could tip the scales in favor of the disease-transmitting pests and pathogens that predators had heretofore kept in check.

"Global warming has the frightening potential to pose a major threat to all life, including ours," said Jennifer Morgan, Climate Policy Officer for WWF-US. "Given the stakes, reducing the carbon pollution that causes global warming should receive the same priority that governments give to halting the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons," she added.

The WWF study notes that diseases like malaria and dengue fever are affecting new and less disease-resistant populations as warmer conditions allow mosquitoes to survive over a wider area and at higher altitudes.

Dengue, a potentially fatal disease for which there is no vaccine, blanketed South America in 1995. It has been recorded in northern Argentina, Australia, and now infects Asia.

"Malaria kills an estimated two million people a year and more than two billion people are currently considered at risk of contracting the disease. In the Northern Hemisphere, cases of malaria contracted from local mosquitoes in recent years have been reported in New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Texas, Georgia, Florida, Michigan and even Toronto.

"Warmer winters and nights are altering the distribution of mosquito-borne diseases, while extreme weather events such as floods and droughts are spawning large clusters of infectious disease outbreaks," Epstein said. "The costs of taking a 'business-as-usual' approach to the problem of global warming are mounting."

The WWF report was issued on the eve of a meeting of environment ministers from 166 countries, who will be traveling to Argentina to join the UN-sponsored climate change negotiations that have been taking place in Buenos Aires this week.

The experts have been discussing how to implement the commitment made by industrialized nations under last year's Kyoto Protocol to reduce their emissions of the gases that cause global warming by five percent over the next 15 years.

WWF believes that, while the Kyoto Protocol was a small step forward, a five percent reduction in the emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, is not nearly enough to mitigate the most serious effects of global warming.

"The Western industrialized countries, which are by far the largest CO2 emitters, must take effective, stronger steps now to reduce their emissions at home in order to ensure that we see a permanent downward turn in carbon pollution by the turn of the century," Morgan said.